Why Literacy? Who I Am and Why I Am Here in the Blogoshpere

Why Literacy?This post was written in response to a wordpress blogging 101 writing task in which bloggers were charged with answering the question “Who am I and why am I here?”

In 2011 after training to become an adult literacy volunteer at Literacy Chicago, I had the great fortune to be turned-on to Reading Against the Odds (RAO), a book discussion group for adult learners. The goal for RAO was “to enhance literacy, critical thinking skills, self-awareness and interpersonal connections through group-based discussions of thematically arranged novels by diverse authors, and relevant cultural activities in the larger community.”

Further, “the notion of “Reading Against the Odds” is connected to the fact that while in the group, students are not only challenging conventional understandings about what they can achieve as adult literacy learners, but also that they are engaging with writers, texts or even ideas that are often culturally marginalized.”

Literacy Chicago’s June Porter told me one day [when I came for one-on-one tutoring] ‘We have a great book discussion group that’s called Reading Against the Odds. They read, listen to recorded readings, and have group discussions about books, plus they visit museums and attend plays and other cultural events.” What?! What days are they meeting? I wanted to know. This group’s interests and activities had my name written all over it! When I first joined the group, it was being facilitated by Jaye Jones, who co-founded RAO with Literacy Chicago in 2007.   They were wrapping-up the reading of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. After a month of sitting-in, joining-in, and otherwise getting a feel for how the group functioned, I was invited to co-facilitate RAO, beginning with the reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That year we also read selections from Yiyun Li’s short story collection Gold Boy, Emerald Girl; and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.

During RAO class periods everyone was encouraged to practice reading aloud. While some students struggled to sound-out “common,” “easy” words, I was reminded of my early school days when children were often shamed and labeled stupid whenever they were called upon to read and their delivery was punctuated by nervous starts, stuttering fits, and mispronunciations. In the RAO classroom I recognized the environment was free of the mean and impatient judgments I remembered from those days. Even though I could read aloud fluently and expressively, I realized that a deep part of my spirit had been waiting more than 30 years for a teacher who would make the environment safe for those learners who required more patient classroom support. (I have since spoken with people who told me that they gave up on school and themselves during their formative years after being marginalized for not catching-on quickly enough).

During discussions the RAO classroom crackled with exchange. Students had a lot to say based on their life experiences, rather than on theoretical suppositions. I realized that many of the people whose voices need to be a part of public discourse are those who have been dismissed and excluded because of their low-literacy skills. Another great takeaway for me was realizing how much I enjoyed reading and learning with others. Prior to my work with RAO I was mostly someone who read solitarily, in a vacuum. It was so wonderful to be “alone” and “away” while reading that I never suspected I was missing out on a lively exchange with others who were experiencing the same text in the same milieu as myself.

Ever since that time I have been contemplating literacies, not just in reading and writing but as a key to daily life, relationships and personal joys; rights and responsibilities as a citizen, as an artist, as a worker, as a consumer.  A wish to examine some of the attitudes that prevent meaningful discourse between low-literate and more highly literate folk is only one of the reasons why I started folklore and literacy.


  1. Thank you for sharing! It is so important to know how to communicate on different levels. Some people who are seen as most “literate” and intelligent have no literacy when talking to the majority of people our society. There are a number of ways to communicate, even just communicating in English in America. Not one communication tool should be seen as more or less valid than another, yet our society is shaped by white male dominant constructs that tell us “Standard English” is the superior form of American English. Whose “standard” has the power to become everyone’s reality? Clearly, not the marginalized. When we understand the American “standard” and have such a strong grasp on our own standard literacies within our sub cultural American groups, we have mastered two worlds. Instead of certain literacies being praised and others being labeled inferior, we should even the playing field. We should encourage all people to understand multiple literacies, from “standard” English to various sub cultures, which will allow for cross cultural communications nation wide.

    Just my little rant on literacy and language, one of my passions after I took a class called African American English while studying abroad in Ghana.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, very inspirational .

    Much Love!!!

    Britt <3

    1. Thank you for coming by, Britt! Another rant like that and I’ll have to identify you as my Guest Blogger! Congratulations on your studies, and I hope you continue to do important work!

      1. Lol Thank you very much! Great to hear back from you. I will Definitely will be in touch and would love to share some of my work with you =)

  2. Back when The Book Thief was chosen for One Book, One Chicago I joined the library book club. Now I’m reading a wide variety—some titles I love and others I struggle to finish– just so I can participate in the discussion.

    This month we’ll be discussing Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I can’t wait for Saturday’s meeting and a lively discussion.

    1. Hello Andrea –

      Thank you for reading my blog posts and commenting! Truly, the Reading Against the Odds program has enriched my whole perspective on literacy.
      Your comment about becoming motivated to join a library book club really interests me. Aside from the “pressure” element of struggling to finish a book in order to participate in a discussion about it—you are still reading with your group! I really enjoyed Americanah. How did your group’s discussion go?

  3. Congratulations on your blog, Leslie!

    I love that by telling your experience, you also documented the innovative Reading Against the Odds program at Literacy Chicago.

    I look forward to reading more of your inspirational entries.

  4. HI , another thank you.

    you referenced Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li, a Chinese author I have not heard of, so of course I checked it out. Have you reviewed this book yet ( as your link too us off site)

    I have recently just read “I am China” by Xiaolu Guo


    an incredibly modern book in the form of notes of a translator who is translating letters from lovers, who form a backdrop to dissidents in modern china … riveting reading.


  5. ” A wish to examine some of the attitudes that prevent meaningful discourse between low-literate and more highly literate folk is only one of the reasons why I started folklore and literacy”

    please link me to where you might have delved deeper into this issue… look forward to reading more


  6. Thank you for this.

    “Prior to my work with RAO I was mostly someone who read solitarily, in a vacuum. It was so wonderful to be “alone” and “away” while reading that I never suspected I was missing out on a lively exchange with others…”

    I have never considered this before.

    Also, the whole concept of literacy levels being affected by the fear of stigma stemming from an un-supportive environment is touching and I have to say overlooked in a lot of places. I think your efforts to help others utilize reading as a social tool, beneficial long after you leave the classroom, is fantastic and I will be walking away from this post today feeling inspired and motivated. Literacies of life, love, learning – Great words 🙂

    1. Itchy – I appreciate your close reading. Stay tuned for a post in which I talk about how I expected to be “the giver” (as a literacy volunteer) but wound up being the recipient of a host of unexpected gifts as well.

  7. Thank you, Leslie. This is a beautiful statement on the value of literacies. I’d never thought of them as plural before! Thank you for enlarging the world for so many of us.

    1. I so appreciate your comments, Margaret. After re-reading my post I felt I hadn’t been as clear as I’d wanted to be. Hopefully, blogging will help to refine my thoughts!

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